Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12
In traditional theological perspective, the main purposes of Advent are to prepare for remembering (and re-experiencing) the birth of Jesus at Christmas (the first Advent), and to prepare for the second coming of Jesus (the second Advent, or the Apocalypse) and the final and complete manifestation of the Realm of God (the “Realm of Heaven”).
While Christians today have differing viewpoints on when, how, or whether the second Advent will occur, virtually all Christians believe that God is dissatisfied with the world in its present state and seeks to increase love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom, and abundance.
In Advent, the church thinks afresh about how to join God in the movement towards a world that is more like the realm of heaven. I can think of no better Advent guide than John the Baptist, whose instructions for preparation are condensed into one word: “Repent!”
John in Matthew’s Gospel is an end-time prophet whose message is that the time has come to repent because the agent through whom God will affect the transformation from this age to the next is now revealed: Jesus. A principal difference between John and Jesus concerns the timing of the movement towards the realm. John sees the realm as future. Matthew portrays the realm as already partially manifest through Jesus, though becoming finally and fully manifest in the future (after the second coming). Repentance is the first step towards joining Jesus in the community moving towards the Realm (Matthew 3:1, 8, 11; 4:17).
The root meaning of “to repent” is “to turn” or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction. To repent is turn away from the values and practices of the old age (e.g., idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery, and scarcity) and to turn towards the values and practices of the Realm of God (typified by the qualities mentioned above).
In this context, repentance includes feeling sorry for one’s personal sins, but it is much more. To repent is to take a clear-minded look at the ways in which one’s life colludes with the assumptions and behaviors of the old age, to turn away from such complicity, and to turn towards God and the attitudes and actions of the realm of heaven.
This text helps the congregation reflect on where values and practices of the old age come to expression in the local community or the larger world, and also where we see qualities and values of the new world.
The sermon can help name particular actions through which the congregation can disconnect from the old and can move toward the new. As a preacher I find it easier to name and criticize affinity for the old than to point to possibilities for aligning with the new. However, preachers should offer the promise of the Realm as vividly as preachers portray collusion with the old. Otherwise, listeners may be left discouraged by the way things are, and without a real sense that the present and future can be different.
John invites listeners to be immersed (baptized). Immersion is an occasion for confession of sin, that is, naming and renouncing collaboration with the old age (Matthew 3:6). Moreover, God uses water to initiate those who repent into a community awaiting the coming of the new age.
Where John immerses with water, Jesus will do so “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:10). The reference to the Holy Spirit assures the community that the eschatological Spirit that fills Jesus at immersion (Matthew 3:13-17) will also fill the disciples (whom Matthew explicitly calls “the church” in Matthew 16:18; 18:15, 17, 21). The reference to “fire” is a vivid image for the apocalypse and especially for the last judgment.
From this point of view, the Second Sunday of Advent would be an excellent day for baptism. Baptism does not so much welcome baptisands into an institution (as we might think of the church) but into an alternative (or countercultural) community empowered by the Spirit for life and witness.
John offers listeners a choice. They can repent, and join the movement toward the Realm, or they can continue to collude with the old age and face eternal condemnation at the final judgment. Matthew frequently uses the vivid language of fire to speak of the consequences of not repenting (Matthew 3:10, 12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8-9; 25:41). Many preachers are theologically uncomfortable with the idea that God condemns people to fire. While I do not think this image can be explained away at an exegetical level, a preacher does not have to accept this picture at the literal level today in order to underscore a deep point: When we do not cooperate with God’s purposes, we invite the consequences upon ourselves.
As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, Jesus reinforces the importance of making this choice, then goes a step farther. As eschatological rabbi as well as final eschatological prophet, Jesus instructs the community how to embody the qualities of the new world while still living in the period of transition between old and new. Repentance is just the first step.
In Matthew 3:7-10, the gospel writer makes a statement which itself requires repentance. Matthew accuses the “Pharisees and Sadducees” of being “vipers,” children of the snake of Genesis 3:1-8. The Pharisees and Sadducees seek to escape from the final judgment without repenting. They rely upon religious pedigree, being children of Sarah and Abraham (Matthew 3:9). For this, the Pharisees and Sadducees are already condemned (Matthew 3:10).
As a beginning preacher I loved this passage because it gave me an opportunity to blast away at members of the congregation who were similar to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Scholarship since those firebrand days concludes that Matthew caricatures the Pharisees and Sadducees as hypocrites and legalists in order to justify the growing distance between traditional synagogues and Matthew’s community. Matthew thus engages in old-age behavior (lying about others). Today’s congregation might prepare for Advent by repenting of our collusion with such misrepresentations of others.